How can youth empowerment and a sense of belonging benefit from creative arts?

How can youth empowerment and a sense of belonging benefit from creative arts?

Maggie Laidlaw, Ilona van Breugel, Eleonora Psenner and  Francesca Lori

Creativity has a universal language that crosses all borders. It teases out, questions and challenges our thoughts from micro to macro politics. It allows us to express ourselves without pre-fabricated barriers, and offers us an insight into experiences unlike our own. VOLPOWER[1] explores how creative practices enable young migrants and their peers in host communities to express themselves to each other.

This expression unfolds the everyday and harnesses the mundane and transforms it into an interactive process for social inclusion. Creativity not only unfolds on the individual level, it can also be observed and triggered among groups in organizations where knowledge and ideas are exchanged. Place-making through arts overcomes isolation and offers tools to meet the “other” in yourself and yourself in the other. It opens up spaces to reflect, re-consider perspectives and look beyond the everyday and local setting. Studying data and activities involving youth participants in Italy, the Netherlands, and Slovenia during 2019 as part of the VOLPOWER project, we explore how arts and culture takes the role of universal language and of “free space” where practices of self-expression, dialogue, and conflict management (at individual and collective levels) unfold.

This article covers a few of the creative arts activities which young volunteers (18-27 years old) participated in as part of the VOLPOWER project. VOLPOWER explores activities with and within different volunteering organisations in Italy, the Netherlands and Slovenia, ranging from dance and circus schools to cooking, photography, and theatre. This article will focus on three of these activities.

South Tyrol, Italy
The volunteers of the VOLPOWER group in South Tyrol explored different facets of communication and empowerment by practicing theatre art. Over the summer months, they met with an artistic director of a local social theatre company and participated in five theatre-lab sessions taking place in a closed and safe environment. The artistic journey started by investigating how to increase attention and awareness of one’s own embodied presence, the (non-verbal) interaction with and between other group members and the interaction with the surrounding space. In a playful way, the participants engaged in exercises using music and their own voice to create micro-patterns of action that they had to repeat and memorize until they formed a small personal vocabulary. With these micro-patterns, they engaged dialogically with each other in creative ways.

Besides being fun, this practice helped to delineate and foster the group dimension, while opening up to the participants´ individual imaginaries. In another exercise, participants were asked to imitate each other´s dance. They attentively observed and reproduced the “character” and attitude of the dancer (and not only his/her movements), which opened up a new dimension of sharing. This awareness and sensitivity can be developed despite any type of cultural differences among participants and can become a source of enrichment and inspiration for them.

Following the theatre-lab activities, one of the VOLPOWER volunteers, of a migration background, commented that he felt much more at ease when speaking to his fellow employees. His colleagues had commented on their appreciation of him opening up and allowing them to get to know him better as an individual. The same participant also felt that his self-esteem had benefited from the creative exercises. These activities helped him to re-connect to experiences of his past, working with a theatre group in his country of origin. The theatre-lab was a key to awakening previous artistic and social skills, to refresh memories of positive periods of his life in his former home country.  Simultaneously, the theatre-lab offered a toolkit to overcome challenges of present life linked to settling in a new home and work context and interacting with new fellows of a different cultural setting.

Rotterdam, The Netherlands
For the Dutch VOLPOWER volunteers, shared experiences were an important means to overcome differences. Creating new shared spaces or experiences enables people to connect. The young adult participants stated that arts, in this case dance classes and activities, can facilitate this space of meeting and connecting. The volunteers emphasized the specific open character of dance as a creative practice: “it doesn’t matter who you are. It is about what you create”. This way, dance forms an open environment for participants to connect and exchange through different dance styles for example, or by bringing different people together through dance.

Fundamental in this, for the volunteers, is the explicitly open character of their organisations (as a free space) when hosting these dance activities – which they link to being a space of art which is typically characterised by an atmosphere of creativeness and openness: “Everyone can say what they want. Everyone listens to you. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you have something to say we will listen, whether we agree or not. You are free there”. Building on this openness, the volunteers also describe artistic engagement as a process of growth and personal development: “To stand for something and speak up. … Show a bit of yourself, be vulnerable. It is scary, but also powerful

Ljubljana, Slovenia
In VOLPOWER Slovenia, cooking, and the act of sharing that comes with it, played a great part in fostering feelings of inclusion, togetherness and empowerment. One volunteer, expressed how, after being struck by the isolation and detachment he found in European society as opposed to his country of origin, he decided to foster sociability between the customers of the bar he worked in by introducing the Eritrean coffee ceremony. Moreover, VOLPOWER Slovenia gave volunteers the opportunity to co-design and implement artistic and cultural activities aimed at facilitating their inclusion and empowerment.

Young adult volunteers proposed, organized and implemented two intercultural dinners. For each occasion, one volunteer would research and put together a traditional menu from their country of origin and prepare it with the help of fellow volunteers. The rhythm of traditional music, selected by the volunteers themselves, accompanied this collaborative activity. The dinners were informal events hosted in the home of one of the project participants. These events allowed the volunteers to research their own traditional cuisines, and share knowledge about their cultures. Those volunteer, organizing the dinners, reported feeling very motivated afterwards: the success of the dinners demonstrated their abilities to design, adapt, and co-ordinate the preparation of an elaborate menu for a group of people.

The events also gave an opportunity for the wider group members to ask the organisers about traditional aspects of their cultures. This often included traditional dances that the other members of the group were interested in learning. Such interactions reportedly fostered a deeper connection and understanding among the volunteers; one volunteer explaining how gathering around the dinner table with her fellow volunteers reminded her of family gatherings and made her feel more at home. As a final point, one volunteer, who had previously indicated her reservedness and reluctance to trust other people as one of her weaknesses, felt encouraged to be more communicative and expressive – describing the creative environment, and the VOLPOWER group in particular, as being especially open, relaxed, accepting and prone to listening without judgment.

This article discusses a variety of artistic activities, each of which cast light on different aspects of the lives of young people in our project. In this sense, art and cultural activities have been the vehicle by which young people learn to express who they are, in all sorts of conscious and unconscious ways. Art has a fundamental role to play in how we understand human feats, and experiences: it has a universal language that crosses all borders – and can help us tease out, question and challenge our thoughts – from the everyday, to larger philosophical questions. Using our creative VOLPOWER activities as an example, we are able to highlight the ways in which creative engagement encourages us to reach ‘beyond what we think we know, [and to] imagine, sometimes disturbing, ways of being or living together’ (Matarasso, 2016:5).

The creative activities our volunteers engaged in allow us to understand that knowledge is not just verbal and in writing, but in art forms, in culture, and embodied in people themselves. When we embark on such creative activities together, we connect and learn about one another. Getting together to create, cook, dance, play, or even just chat, can be considered sources of vital information that provoke reflection, and that are necessary to the interdependencies that build healthy societies. This is not trivial, and it can be argued that thinking creatively and imaginatively can drive broader political imaginations (Crossick and Kaszynska, 2016; Gauntlett, 2011). When given the opportunity to reflect and imagine together, human beings can be innovative together, discover (and voice) alternatives to existing assumptions – and, in this sense can plan better futures for ourselves and others.

Such practices have been empowering for our young VOLPOWER volunteers, and are congruent with a mode of being and understanding that values people’s own creative potential. Practicing any art – no matter how well – is hugely rewarding, not necessarily in financial terms, but in finding out about oneself. There is also something to be gained from aspects of failure involved in the ‘trial and error’ that takes place within creative engagements – and the overcoming of ‘failed’ attempts. This in itself builds resilience, confidence and the ‘creative capacity to deal with significant challenges’ (Gauntlett, 2011: 20). This is absolutely necessary for personal well-being, but also for the growth of healthy, diverse, and inclusive societies.

[1] VOLPOWER explores how youth volunteering in sports and arts activities can serve as a mechanism for social integration for youth. Sport and arts activities by their very nature demand high levels of interaction between participants. The project examines these ideas by working with volunteers in sport and arts organisations from across Europe. The main aims of this project are to initiate youth volunteering in sport and arts related activities amongst EU migrant and non-migrant volunteers in order to explore the effects which volunteering has on an individual’s or communities’ sense of social integration.

Crossick, Geoffrey, and Patrycja Kaszynska. 2016. Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture: The AHRC Cultural Value Project. Swindon, UK: Arts & Humanities Research Council.
Gauntlett, David. 2011. Making Is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Matarasso, F. 2016. ‘More in Common: Meeting One Another through Art and culture                  v.2’. Presented at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield.


Maggie Laidlaw is a Post-Doctoral Researcher within the Department of Economics in the Glasgow School of Business & Society at Glasgow Caledonian University. She is also Lead Curator with Volpower, and Module Leader & Lecturer in (PG) Applied Skills in Qualitative Research Methods within the GCU Graduate School. Ilona van Breugel is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research focuses on (local) governance of migration diversity. She works as the PI for the Dutch team of the VOLPOWER project. Eleonora Psenner is a cultural manager and researcher with Eurac Research. Her artistic path begins with contemporary dance and theatre. She then continues her profession with documentary film and event management. For the AMIF Volpower project she is in charge of the South Tyrolean group of VOLPOWER volunteers and their creative activities. Francesca Lori is a Master’s graduate in International Relations and Diploma graduate in Violin. As a junior researcher for the VOLPOWER project at APIS Institute in Ljubljana, she has been organizing and facilitating cultural and artistic activities, as well as investigating their impact on the inclusion, empowerment, and sense of belonging of a group of EU and third-country national volunteers.

Image Credit: VOLPOWER volunteers share artistic expressions of dance and juggling in the co-creation of a video project – VOLPOWER International Volunteer Event (10-14 June 2019, Zagreb) ©

Acknowledgements: This project has received funding from European Union’s AMIF Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund project Volpower: Volunteer and Empower: Enhancing Community Building and Social Integration through Dialogue and Collaboration amongst Young Europeans and Third Country Nationals under grant agreement No. 821619. Any dissemination of results here presented reflects only the authors’ view. The Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.